Bern – Protecting migrants en route from North Africa to Italy was the focus of a meeting of ministers from south and north of the Mediterranean in the Swiss city of Bern on Monday.
The Central Mediterranean Contact Group previously focused mainly on keeping migrants away when it gathered for its first two meetings in Rome in March and in Tunis in July.
According to estimates by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in Libya, North Africa’s main departure point, some 17,000 migrants are held in inhumane conditions in camps, while thousands are kept in dungeons.
The aid organisations said the migrants were being subjected to slavery, hunger and extortion at the hands of criminal groups.
A senior UNHCR official told newsmen shortly before the Bern meeting that UNHCR planned to expand its EU-funded programme of evacuating vulnerable refugees from Libya to neighbouring Niger.
“Up to 500 people are to be brought out of Libya until the end of the year,’’ Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Mediterranean migration envoy, said.
Switzerland invited officials of the UN, the Red Cross and the EU to the Contact Group meeting, along with ministers and senior officials from Algeria, Austria, Chad, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Libya, Mali, Malta, Niger, Slovenia, and Tunisia.
They are set to discuss how to improve conditions in Libya’s detention centres and to build up asylum systems in other African countries.
Since January, 114,000 mostly African migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores.
Arrival numbers have dropped sharply since July, following deals that Rome struck with the Libyan coastguard and allegedly local militias.